Making Progress

Venerable Dieu Tinh

As practitioners we must make progress, because without progress our time and effort will go to waste.  Just like a student would only waste time and effort if he does not make any progress in his learning.

How do we know if we are making progress?  It is when we are able to bring or mind back to the present.  When noticing our mind wandering away, we are able to bring it back in time, before it leads us to act in unwholesome ways.

For progress to be possible, we need to apply three elements to our practice.  Regardless of which Dharma Door we follow, these three elements serve to support the transformation of our habits and ultimately leading to the transformation of sufferings.

The first element is alertness.  It means being sensitive to what goes on in the mind.  We have developed the habits of re-living and pre-living.  That is, we often either dwell in the past or anticipate the future; we rarely live in the present.

For example, we came to the meditation hall with the initial purpose of meditating, but as we settled down we began to think about the works that needed to be done for tomorrow.  Although we were sitting, we were actually making plans.

Alertness allows us to recognize how our mind slips off, where it is going, and what it is doing.  The more sensitive we are towards the mind, the more rounded our self-recognition will be.  This is a mutual effect: the higher the alertness, the more open we are to the states of mind.

The second element is consistency.  It means to be diligent and steadfast.  Because an untrained mind likes to wander, we need to keep vigil over it.  Every time it wanders, bring it right back.  If it goes wandering one hundred times, for one hundred times bring it back.  If it goes wandering one thousand times, for one thousand times bring it back.  It gets easier each time we do this, and we can become more skillful at it.  Bringing back the mind is a skill that can be developed over time.

The Buddha uses the images of a monkey and a horse to describe an untrained mind.  We can imagine the chaos that these two animals can create and relate it to the chaos that goes on in an untrained mind.  But with skillful training and consistent application, the mind has a place to come back to.  It does go astray from time to time, but we have already developed the skills to bring it back more easily and within shorter time.  Consistent training and practice is essential to the development.

The third element is patience.  Often times we are eager to see results.  But our practice does not always bear immediate results.  Patience means to accept ourselves the way we are, and knowing that our short-comings can be transformed.  Patience also means to be kind to ourselves and to allow for even setbacks in our practice.

There are times when we can bring back to the mind very easily, but at other times this task can become extremely laborious.  Habits are what we acquire over time, in order to unlearn them we need to be patient with them.  Patience allows us to proceed in our own speed.  It is the underlying factor that holds our practice together.

Because training the mind is acquired only through persistent application and also requires time and effort, we as practitioners often become discouraged along the way.  Without patience, our practice would only be momentarily.  Patience is the underlying factor that pushes us to progress bit by bit, day by day.

In conclusion, there are three essential elements for making progress in cultivation: alertness, consistency, and patience.  These elements can develop the helpful skills for recognizing the activity of the mind, how to bring the mind back to the present moment, and how to transform our unwholesome habits.  We must remember that wholesome practice will bring wholesome results.